Depression is more common than you realize
For whatever reason, something can be common as dirt, yet many people still don’t understand it.
Take depression, for instance, which has been called the common cold of mental illness.
Full disclosure: I was medically diagnosed (that will be important later) with depression years ago. I’ve been on a low level of antidepressants for years, and mine is a fairly mild case anyway. The pills work splendidly; I think my dosage might have been tweaked once, but they’ve pretty much handled things.
(The only side effect is that because the medication suppresses REM sleep, if I skip them for a few days I have these vivid and often weird dreams; at least that’s an interesting side effect.)
But I’ve also been close to many depressives, so I know a lot about the subject. I’ve known people like me, who keep it under control with a daily pill, and at least one person whose depression was so severe it was only cured by electroconvulsive therapy.
While they weren’t all diagnosed, everybody in my immediate family has suffered from depression at one time or another. And I suspect it goes back at least a couple of generations.
I’m as sure as I can be, for example, that my Dad was depressive, although he never was actually diagnosed. He had a pretty short fuse, and his depression came out as anger. He was a good man, father and provider, but it affected his relationship with all four of us kids to varying degrees. I suspect he inherited it from his father, who was a major dirtbag and the town drunk of Ironwood, Michigan; self-medicating with alcohol is common for depressives.
In fact, anger is how depression came out with me. When my kids were young, my then-wife noticed I yelled at them all the time. She was depressive herself and suggested I see a doctor. Voila; hello, Paxil.
While my symptoms weren’t unusual, depression can come out in myriad ways. Sometimes it’s anger, but it can also be a persistent feeling of hopelessness or apathy, or even seemingly unrelated physical pain. And every symptom has a wide range of severity. You might not feel like eating, or you might feel like killing yourself.
But as I said, common as it is, people — even some of those who have it — don’t understand it very well.
I wasn’t diagnosed until long after my Dad had died, but even if I had been, suggesting to him that he was depressive would have been a very delicate conversation. He was of the World War II generation, and had I told him he was “depressive,” what he would have heard was “crazy.” One of the few regrets of my lifetime is that he was never treated, because he would have gotten at least some of the happiness he deserved.
But all too many people think there’s some sort of shame that comes with depression. There is, but it’s totally irrational. And that’s one of the reasons I’m writing this. There should be no shame.
Or some people come up with suggestions for handling it that are, to say the least, not helpful.
My favorite is “just cheer up,” followed by a list of suggestions that will “help that happen.” Take a walk, take up a hobby.
But what people don’t understand is that it’s a medical condition. It has physical causes that have to do with brain chemistry. We depressives have brains that just aren’t acting as they should. It’s exactly the same as a diabetic whose pancreas isn’t working as it should. You can’t cure depression just by losing weight, though, as you sometimes can with diabetes.
Depression is further complicated because while it’s chronic, it may not show itself until a situation comes up that’s hard to handle.
Years ago I suffered a minor career reversal. My depression had been bubbling at a low, controlled level, but one particular day I remember when that reversal was really bugging me. It felt, almost literally, like there was a huge hand on top of my head pushing it down.
Now, I occasionally have a day when I awaken feeling a bit funky, for whatever reasons, and I recognize that as a day when my brain chemistry is out of whack. The pill helps that about 99 percent of the time.
So what’s the point of all this?
It’s that there’s more depression out there than you probably know. It’s the guy at the next desk at work, even the one who seems cheerful and happy much of the time. It’s your wife, or maybe your kid. It’s even the egomaniac you know, who seems to think they’re king of the world.
If you want to help a depressive, keep an open mind. If they’re undiagnosed, be gentle; if they are on medication, support them and don’t make snide comments. And never, ever — EVER EVER EVER — tell them to stop taking their medication without talking to a doctor first. There can be dire consequences of that, and I’m not talking about weird dreams.
And for God’s sake, don’t tell them to “cheer up.”
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org